Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Review: Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

Hardback book cover of Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James
So it's a fairly well established fact that I like Pride and Prejudice - I have 54 copies of the book and I can give you a play-by-play of the Jennifer Ehle series without ever needing to consult an episode guide. I was the only person in my Law class to be amused when a court case involved a Charlotte Lucas. Therefore it wasn't precisely unfair of my boyfriend to remark "Well of course you didn't like it, stupid." But... I don't know. I think I did expect to like it, at least somewhat. Phyllis Dorothy James is an actual fan of Jane Austen and an established crime author - not some hack trying to cash in on classic fans. And yet it remains that Death Comes to Pemberley just didn't bring it home somehow.

Plot summary - The year is 1803, and Darcy and Elizabeth have been married for six years. There are now two handsome and healthy sons in the nursery, Elizabeth's beloved sister Jane and her husband Bingley live nearby and the orderly world of Pemberley seems unassailable. But all this is threatened when, on the eve of the annual autumn ball, as the guests are preparing to retire for the night a chaise appears, rocking down the path from Pemberley's wild woodland. As it pulls up, Lydia Wickham - Elizabeth's younger, unreliable sister - stumbles out screaming that her husband has been murdered.

Death Comes to Pemberley starts off with a wonderful Author's Note that apologises to Jane Austen for what P.D. James has done to her characters. It's gentle humour and clearly shows her respect. She's been a Jane Austen fan all her life and it feels like this book was written to indulge a whim of the author, not for money. It is basically fanfiction, after all.

That said, it doesn't quite work. The plot itself is fine - nothing particularly new, but then that isn't really what the novel sets out to do. The twists and the grand revelation fit in with what we know of the characters and it's easy to imagine them acting the way they did. The main problem is in the way they speak and think.

They're all so flat! Elizabeth especially is notably 'flat' - her character has none of the wit or ingenuity she is so renowned for. In fact, I'd go so far as to say she was painted quite harshly. At one point she even thinks to herself how she wouldn't have married Mr. Darcy if he was poor, despite wishing only to marry for love in Pride and Prejudice. The narrative mentions how strange Georginana found it at first when Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy teased each other... but they don't. Ever. 

It took a while for the story to get going - it's definitely more of a legal drama than any kind of crime/thriller. I know not a whole lot happens in Pride and Prejudice either, but Death Comes to Pemberley goes off on tangents about the relatives of the servants, for God's sake.

It's also quite obvious that P.D. James isn't accustomed to writing historical fiction. The prose itself is lovely - very authentic and Austen-y. It's just that every so often one of the characters will go into a full monologue to bludgeon you with historical explanation. As an example... the characters are proceeding to the courtroom. Mr. Darcy turns around and says, out of the blue, 'Remind me of the court process again?' and then one of the other characters will branch off into a full blown lecture for a page or so. He's a magistrate! I could deal with this once or twice, but not the frequency with which it happens. It stopped the flow entirely.

With reference to that... It's not P.D. James fault (or I assume not, considering she's a London magistrate and an Honorary Bencher at Inner Temple), but how backwards was the court system back then!? I wanted to scribble over and correct the entire thing! So ridiculously warped and biased.

It isn't much of a crime story, so I can't help but feel that it was written mainly to tie up a few loose ends left over from Pride and Prejudice. Mr. Darcy and Georgiana still have issues over her intended elopement, for example, and he apologises to Elizabeth for his earlier poor treatment of her. Their relationship just didn't seem to gel throughout this book though, so I remained unmoved. It doesn't help that the one thing I wanted to be rectified, wasn't. Lydia. Good Lord that girl needs her comeuppance.

To conclude, Death Comes to Pemberley is... fine. It wouldn't have stood on its own feet without using this particular set of characters, but even they are flat and lifeless for the most part. It's easily readable but nothing special.

Read my reviews of Emma and Northanger Abbey.


  1. 54 copies of Pride & Prejudice? Wow, you're a superfan. I just finished reading it for the first time this week and was intrigued by the title of this book but alas, you didn't enjoy it.

  2. I have this one on my to be read list and most of my friends are giving it so/so reviews. I'm a bit disappointed, but I'll still read it and see how it holds up.

  3. 54 copies! Wowza, and I thought I was a fan ;)
    I haven't tried any of the P&P "sequels" but I'm not sure I'd like them. I don't see how anyone could recreate Austen's wonderful characters. I'd rather just reread the original, I think.

  4. I bought this in the summer and haven't read it yet after seeing so many 'oh what a shame' reviews. I really should read it and stop warehousing this (rare for me) hardback. After all, there are other books that could easily earn it's spot in my bookcases if it's a dud...

  5. I SO wanted to like this book! But I couldn't get into it at all. It was more the pacing/narrative voice for me. SIGH. And I am usually up for a Jane Austin retelling.

    Marlene Detierro (TeakaToys - H1 Accessories)

  6. 54 copies of P&P? Respect. I also love the Jennifer Ehle/Colin Firth TV series, much better than any other productions. When I'm ill, I settle on the sofa under a blanket and watch the whole thing through. SD


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